When I discovered that Heartbreak Productions would be presenting an all-singing, all-dancing rendition of Love’s Labour’s Lost at Nottingham Castle as part of their Outdoor Theatre Season, I was intrigued: after all, musical Shakespeare is something I’d never encountered before. As the audience settled onto our fold-out chairs and picnic blankets and waited for the castle grounds to fill up, we were entertained by James Edwards, who played both Holofernes the schoolmaster and Navarre. Dressed in traditional academic garb–a mortar board, a pair of thin spectacles, and long black robes–he interacted with members of the audience whilst selling programmes for the show. Engaging in conversation, he informed us that he was an Oxford Professor.
Edwards then went on to select an audience member to help him finish writing a poem on his blackboard which began, ‘I wandered lonely as a pig…’ (parodying the famous Wordsworth poem), a segment which was highly entertaining and humorous, preventing us from becoming impatient as we waited for the play proper to begin. Audience participation was encouraged frequently throughout the production, and was often effective, particularly in the opening and introductory scenes in which we met the characters. Especially amusing were Jacquenetta’s (Anna Rowland) flirtations with male members of the audience–at one point she even kissed a gentleman on the cheek, marking him with a scarlet lipstick stain and leaving him blushing. However, as the play wore on, the cast’s numerous addresses to the audience became a little detrimental to the flow of the story, often interrupting the development of the plot.
Sadly, the songs had a similar effect. While the cast were apt at singing, the songs themselves failed to bring anything extra to the play. I found the overall effect to be a little jarring and off-putting. When I discovered that the play was set in 1920s Oxford, I expected the music would either evoke that era or be reminiscent of the early modern period in which the original play was written. However, the songs did not seem to relate to either period and, therefore, stood out as slightly awkward and irrelevant musical interludes. The final song was an exception: it seemed to have a vague 1920s feel, was accompanied by archetypal dance moves from the period (including the Charleston), and even included the title of the play as part of the lyrics. For these reasons, the final number was easily the most memorable and catchy of the songs in the production, as the others failed to make much of an impression. Often in musicals songs function to propel the action and move the narrative forward, yet most of the songs in this production merely reiterated something we already knew, such as Biron’s love for Rosaline, and I found myself waiting for the songs to finish so I could see the next scene. I was left with the general impression that some of the time spent on songs could have been used more effectively to include more of Shakespeare’s dialogue, as the performance in between songs was comparatively funny and enjoyable.
The lines that were kept from the Shakespearean play text were, for the most part, delivered clearly and intelligently by the cast, although at times some of the early modern speeches were a little stilted and perhaps could have been a bit more conversational and natural. Ross Townsend Green was particularly talented at delivering some of the most lengthy and complicated of the speeches in the play in his roles as both Biron, whose lines feature lots of rhetoric and word play, and Don Armado, whose speech includes many puns and a humorous failure to understand the English language. Townsend Green’s performance as both characters was arguably the most affecting and engaging; as Biron he was charming and clever, and as Don Armado he was extravagant, foolish, and endearing. Particularly impressive was his delivery of a speech near the beginning of the play in which Biron, Navarre, and Longaville enter into their three year pact to avoid women. As Biron waxes poetic in an attempt to dissuade Navarre from enforcing such a pact, he declares that ‘Light seeking light doth light of light beguile: / So, ere you find where light in darkness lies, / Your light goes dark by the losing of your eyes’–a wordy, complex, tongue-twister of a speech which Townsend Green performed articulately and affectingly.
Others actors that stood out include Clark Alexander, who took on no less than four roles: Dull, Longaville, Boyet, and Marcade. He was particularly amusing as Dull (the simpleton policeman) and Boyet (a servant of the Princess), playing the former as hilariously witless and hopelessly slow and the latter as slightly sneaky and rather conceited–at one point, viewing his reflection in a mirror and proceeding to twirl his hair, check his teeth, and gaze adoringly at himself. Amy Gardyne should also be noted for her contrastingly subtle and kindly Maria, as well as a clever but humble Moth. Gardyne was softly spoken, cheerful, and understated in both roles and provided a refreshing and more astute style of acting than some of the louder and more clichéd characters in the play, some of which will be discussed in more detail below.
I found both of Victoria Croft’s roles overly exaggerated and almost like caricatures, though it was unclear whether this was result of directing choices or acting style. Croft played the character of Costard, a rustic, dressed like a Dickensian orphan boy in grey shorts with a matching bow tie and flat cap, speaking in an outrageously strong cockney accent and continuously laughing unnecessarily and slapping her thigh. Although Costard is intended to be a comic character, Croft’s interpretation of him was over the top and overtly silly to the point where Costard became a little annoying. In stark contrast, Croft also doubled as Biron’s love interest, Rosaline, in which role she adopted an excessively aristocratic accent that almost resembled Received Pronunciation and reminded me of Lady Bracknell from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I found this portrayal of Rosaline to be disconcerting. Instead of a strong woman attempting to simultaneously assert her independence whilst falling in love with the charming Biron, Croft’s Rosaline came across as a little pretentious, hard-faced, and condescending. I thusly found it difficult to like the character.
One of the strengths of this play was the skill with which the actors presented its comic scenes. The mingling of Shakespeare’s original language with snippets of modern, colloquial speech–and the liberal inclusion of sexual innuendos from both time periods–made for many moments of hilarity. Additionally, the cast excelled at physical comedy. This included a scene in which Don Armado attempted to mimic the dance moves of Moth (which resulted in him falling from the stage), as well as some tomfoolery with a minute prop bush and a scene in which Biron, Navarre, and Longaville fought and ended up in a pile, one on top of the other.
Another feature I found interesting was the decision to set this play in the 1920s. The production did feature some costumes that were clearly in keeping with the period’s fashion, particularly those that the Princess and her ladies-in-waiting, who were dressed as flappers with feathered hair accessories and pearls. Beyond this, however, the twenties theme was a little vague. There is something apt about setting an adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost in a period associated with female emancipation and the beginning of the liberation of women. I do feel, however, that much more might have been made of the way that this setting speaks to the proto-feminist undertones of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a romantic comedy remarkable for the fact that its central female characters ultimately decide to defer marriage (in contrast to most other romantic comedies of Shakespeare’s era, which characteristically end with weddings or, at the very least, the promise of marriage). The ties between the Shakespearean text and the choice of setting could have been used more effectively to make connections between the lives and difficulties of women in two extremely different periods of history.
Overall, this was a light-hearted, funny, and enthusiastic performance from a cast who were clearly enjoying themselves. While the production as a whole lacked a certain sense of coherence, and was, in some respects, a little shallow in its portrayal of Shakespeare’s characters, this play would be perfect for those looking for a fun, silly, vibrant, and upbeat Shakespearean experience. It is perhaps most suited to families and newcomers to drama (and Shakespeare in particular). Personally, I found that the greatest strength of this production was the passion and dedication that the actors demonstrated. They worked fantastically together as a team–selling their own programmes and dealing with technical difficulties, as well as playing a minimum of two parts each. Their energetic enthusiasm was a joy to witness, and they were successful in generating an atmosphere of joviality, fun, and exuberance merely through their own commitment to their work, alongside the small amount of resources they have. Despite my quibbles, there is no doubt that this play by Heartbreak Productions was indeed a labour of love.